The largely unspoken assumption on which the post-2014 plan is built is that Afghanistan’s own forces will be strong enough to hold off the Taliban on their own starting in 2015 and to prevent the country’s relapse into civil war.
The worry is that if the Taliban regained power they would allow al-Qaida to return in large numbers, defeating the original purpose of the U.S. military action in 2001.
It’s a touchy topic at this stage of a still-unfolding war, with Afghans fearful of being abandoned by their foreign partners and Washington and its NATO allies wary of committing too heavily to a corrupt Kabul government facing an uncertain future.
Budget pressures in the U.S. and Europe also complicate the outlook.
“There’s no question in the current budget environment, with deep cuts in European defense spending and the kind of political gridlock that we see in the United States now with regards to our own budget, is putting at risk our ability to effectively act together,” Panetta said. “As I prepare to step down as secretary of defense, I do fear that the alliance will soon be, if it is not already, stretched too thin.”
Panetta is expected to retire as soon as his successor is confirmed. The Senate could vote on the confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as the next Pentagon chief as early as Wednesday. Panetta is leaving just as Gen. Joseph Dunford is settling in as the successor to Gen. John Allen as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.
Another source of anxiety among the allies is Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election; President Hamid Karzai, who has run the country since U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001, is not running and there is no obvious successor.